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Journal of Caribbean Amerindian His ton- and Anthropology 

KACIKE: Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology ISSN 1562-5028 
Special Issue edited by Lynne Guitar 

Not Everyone Who Speaks Spanish is from Spain: 
Taino Survival in the 21st Century Dominican Republic 

Dr. P. J. Ferbel 


The national identity of the 
Dominican Republic is based on an 
idealized story of three cultural roots- 
African, and Taino-with a 
amnesia of the tragedies and 
inherent to the processes of 
domination and resistance. 
African, Taino and mixed Afro- 
culture have been marginalized 







in favor of nationalist ideologies of 

progress and civilization found in the 

embrace of Hispanidad and Catholicism. 

In such a way, Dominicans have been 

disconnected from their African, their 

indigenous, and their mixed Afro- Mestizo 

Criollo (Creole) ancestry and cultural 

heritage, even though it is these 

ancestries and heritages which mark 

Dominicans with the significant emblems 

of their contemporary identity. 

In this paper, I assess the survival 
of Taino culture by building on the work of 
two important studies addressing Taino 
heritage in the Dominican Republic — 
Bernardo Vega's (1981) "La herencia 
indigena en la cultura dominicana de hoy" 
and Garcia Arevalo's (1988) 
"Indigenismo, arqueologia, e identidad 
nacional." My conclusion is that there is 
significant cultural heritage of Taino origin 

that has persisted to this day. That 
heritage, together with the historical 
evidence for Taino survival presented by 
my colleagues Lynne Guitar and Jorge 
Estevez, points me to the understanding 
that the Taino people were never extinct 
but, rather, survived on the margins of 
colonial society to the present. 

The story of Taino extinction was 
created as a colonial strategy to 
disempower the Native people and as a 
way to legitimate the importation of slaves 
from Africa. Ironically, the Taino culture 
that survives may be considered the 
strongest and most deeply planted "roots" 
of the contemporary Afro-Mestizo Criollo 
Dominican identity. Anthropology teaches 
us today that there is no such thing as a 
"pure" race or a "pure" culture — with 
every generation, the composition of a 
population changes. Therefore, even 
though the physical appearance of 
Dominicans may be mixed-- multi- 
biological- they all share a common uni- 
cultural heritage simply by practicing 
traditional Dominican cultural forms. Just 
because Dominicans look "African" or 
"European" or "Mixed" does not mean 
they cannot legitimately celebrate their 
Taino heritage. And just because 
Dominicans speak Spanish it does not 
mean their strongest cultural root comes 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 

from Spain. Finally, just because 
Dominicans want to celebrate their Taino 
roots does not necessarily mean they 
want to negate their African or European 
or other heritages. 

Today, as professors, researchers, 
and students we must accept the 
responsibility to critically re-examine the 
stories of Taino extinction from a position 
free from racial politics and nationalist 
agendas. In such a way, we open the 
door for all Dominicans to understand 
their true history, identify with all their 
ancestors, celebrate their traditional 
culture, and use this knowledge to help 
them find their path beyond Columbus's 

Taino Cultural Heritage 

My knowledge of Taino cultural 
heritage comes from five years living and 

working in the Cibao region of the 
Dominican Republic, the land the Taino 
called Quisqueya. I first went to the 
Dominican Republic in 1992 to conduct 
research on the commemoration of the 
Columbian Quincentennial. At that time, I 
assumed what I read in textbooks and 
journals about the extinction of the Taino 
was true. I found many romanticized 
representations of Tainos used as 
decoration on buildings, hawking 
products like mascots, and generally 
presented in ways that suggested they 
were frozen in a time before Columbus 
(see Figure 1). There was little public 
discussion about history or cultural 
identity, and the official channels that 
promoted heritage and identity were 
focused on celebrating the Hispanic past 
and a myth about a tripartite identity that 
led principally to the creation of merengue 
music. The Taino were extinct. Period. 


ffi I 


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t i i 

(■ i t. 


i a 




•il»- - ■' ' mgg'i". 'T¥t-J 

L Ha 

i *^T HATli'iV XS?" HATUE 

Representing Tainos: 
Hatuey Soda Crackers 

I was therefore surprised to find 
many strong cultural forms of Taino origin 
practiced in daily Dominican life, 
especially in the campo (see Figure 2). I 
was also struck by the ironic and 
contradictory expression of Taino cultural 

knowledge, whereby many Dominicans 
practiced strong indigenous cultural forms 
but did not identify with them. In fact, 
seen as socio-economically 

unprogressive, they were often ashamed 
by these cultural displays. At the same 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 

time, the Taino archaeological heritage 

was plundered and vandalized (see 

Figure 3), history and culture were topics 
of interest only for the upper class, and 

there were little resources available for 

communities to encourage traditional 

cultural activities. I soon began to realize 

how the traditional culture of Quisqueya 
existed in opposition to the economic 
realities of "modernization." In other 
words, development towards a Western 
economy meant movement away from 
traditional Dominican culture and Taino 

Fiqure 2 

Fiqure 3 

Traditional casabe making on 
a buren griddle at Guagui, La 

SVandalism of petroglyphs, 
Rio Chacuey, Dajabon. 
Photo credit: Jason 

"Heritage" may be defined as the 
cultural and biological legacy that 
contemporary people have carried on 
from their ancestral past to become a part 
of their communal identity in the present. 
Taino heritage can be found in the 
Dominican Republic in many forms, 
including language, agriculture, food 
ways, medicinal knowledge, craft 
technologies, architecture, spiritual 
beliefs, family life, festivals, popular 
culture, and genetic bloodlines (Ferbel 

1995; Garcia Arevalo 1988, 1990; Vega 
1980; Weeks and Ferbel 1994). This 
Taino heritage has been passed on for 
generations, originating with the 
Arawakan speaking people who migrated 
into the Caribbean from the Orinoco River 
Valley some 1500 years before Spanish 
exploration. Archaeologists believe a 
distinct Taino culture had developed in 
the Caribbean by the year 600 A.D. and 
thus flourished for 900 years before 
Columbus (Rouse 1992; Weeks and 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 

Ferbel 1994). Given this time frame, it 
should come as no surprise that the 
Taino rooted their culture with a profound 
understanding of the Caribbean 

The impact of 15th century 
European colonization on the Taino was 
nothing short of devastating, and 
completely re-structured the trajectory of 
their native life ways. Confronted with 
deadly foreign diseases, unable to 
schedule their agricultural planting, forced 
into systems of social, economic, and 
political domination, losing rights to land, 
free expression, and, in many cases, to 
life itself, the Taino had to find radical 
ways to survive. Resistance took many 
forms. Many Taino fought against the 
intruders, who had the distinct advantage 
of coming from a place with a history of 
guns, swords, horses, dogs, and trickery. 
Many Taino hid in isolated Maroon 
communities, along with runaway African 
slaves, far from the Spaniard towns and 
plantations. Others were forced into slave 
and serf positions and lived alongside 
Africans and Spaniards. 

Dominican historian Frank Moya 
Pons (1992) shows that during the period 
of early Spanish colonization a process of 
transculturation began whereby Tainos 
mixed within the Spanish population, 
together with African slaves, giving rise to 
a new Creole culture. This is 
substantiated historically by census 
records of 1514, which show forty per 
cent of Spanish men on the island had 
Indian wives or concubines (Moya Pons 
1992:135). Interaction between Africans 
and Indians is documented in plantation 
records and in descriptions of runaway 
slave communities (Garcia Arevalo 
1990:275). Further, ethnohistorian Lynne 
Guitar (1998) demonstrates the historical 
marginalization of the Taino beginning in 
the 16th century. While being declared 

extinct in official documents — for the 
purpose of legitimating colonial control 
and rationalizing the importation of 
African slaves — references to Indians 
continued to appear in wills and legal 
proceedings, demonstrating their survival 
on the margins of colonial society. 

Over the years, a poor, but landed, 
peasantry developed from the original 
group of Indians, Africans and 
Europeans, who continued to share 
bloodlines and culture, developing their 
own communities in the countryside. As 
these communities were engaged in a 
struggle to live on the land, they used 
their repertoire of cultural knowledge to 
best survive. Naturally, they relied on 
their Taino heritage, which represented 
many generations of knowledge, tradition, 
and oral history about the land. This is 
still true for present-day Dominicans, 
especially in the agrarian countryside. 

Taino Heritage 

Linguistic Features 

The Dominican Republic often uses its 
indigenous name Quisqueya as a 
common referent. Dominicans like to call 
themselves "Quisqueyanos"; the name 
even appears in the first words of the 
Dominican national anthem: 

"Quisqueyanos valientes..." 

The Spanish language has several 
hundred words that come from the 
indigenous Arawakan language of the 
Caribbean. These words go beyond 
names of objects, place names, flora, and 
fauna that did not have a name in the 
Spanish language, like canoa, hurican, 
hamaca, caiman, barbacoa, tobaco, 
maraca, marimba, iguana, and manatee. 
There are also many words and 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 

expressions that are indigenous in origin 
that are used instead of their Spanish 
names. Examples include: mabi, a natural 
juice; macana, a policeman's club; and 
macuto, a hand sack. The Taino phrase 
"un chin" or "chin-chin" means a small 
amount in Dominican Spanish, and is as 
common as the Spanish phrase "un 
poquito." The use of these words suggest 
not simply the effect of one culture 
borrowing or appropriating names for 
things they did not know, but a more 
complex interplay between two cultures. 

Many, if not a majority of 
Dominican cities, campos, rivers, and 
mountains have indigenous names, 
including: Amina, Bani, Bao, Bonao, 
Cotui, Cutupu, Dajabon, Damajagua, 
Guajaca, Guayubin, Inoa, Jacagua, 
Janico, Licey, Magua, Maguana, Mao, 
Nagua, and Samana. The majority of 
rivers have Taino names, including 
Haina, Maimon, Ozama, Sosua, Tireo, 
and Yaque. Most native trees and fruits 
have Taino names, including Anacajuita, 
Caimito, Cajuil, Caha, Caoba, Ceiba, 
Cuaba, Guacima, Guano, Guao, 
Guayaba, Guanabana and Guayacan. 
Beyond flora, indigenous insects, birds, 
fish, and other animals with names of 
Taino origin may list into the hundreds. 
They include the Bibijagua (ant), 
Comejen (termite), Carey (sea turtle), 
Hicotea (river turtle), manatee, and 
Guaraguao (Dominican hawk). 

Due to the process of mestizaje, 
whereby the Spaniard male colonists took 
Indian wives, it is not surprising that no 

Taino surnames have survived to the 
present. Still, Dominicans use historical 
Taino names in the contemporary naming 
of children. Examples include the 
prominent politicians Caonabo Polanco 
and Hatuey Deschamps, and jazz great 
Guarionex Aquino. 

Many Dominicans can distinguish 
a Taino name by its sound, though not 
reliably. It may be that the Cibao rural 
dialect's transformation of words ending 
in the Spanish suffix "-ado" into the 
Arawakan sounding "ao" is a vestige of 
Taino pronunciation (e.g., Colorado 
becomes colorao). Regardless of its true 
historicity, it is certain that there exists a 
romanticized Indian association with 
these campo pronunciations. Another 
example is the use of the "I" with words 
ending with an "R" (Que calor! becomes 

It is interesting that several Taino 
words that are used in other parts of the 
Antilles, are not used in the Dominican 
Republic. Examples include using the 
Spanish word lechosa instead of the 
indigenous papaya, the Spanish word 
pina (pineapple) instead of the indigenous 
yayama, and the Spanish cotorra (parrot) 
instead of the indigenous higuaca. 
However, for all these words, many 
people are aware of their indigenous 
names as well. There are several 
instances where both indigenous and 
Spanish words are interchangeable, for 
example, the Spanish word tarantula and 
the Taino word cacata are used equally 
(see Figure 4). 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 

Fiqure 4 

Tarantula, also known by 
the Taino word cacata 

Some indigenous words have 
changed their meanings over the years. 
For example, a batey, which originally 
described a Taino ceremonial ball court, 
today refers to the residence location of 
Haitians on sugar plantations. Guacara, 
originally referring to a cave or cavern, 
now describes a place or thing of 


Many Dominican agricultural terms 
have Taino origins. The word conuco, 
while its meaning is lost as a mixed-crop 
method of agriculture similar to the 
mainland indigenous milpa, has retained 
the concept as a plot of land used for 
farming. Unfortunately, Dominicans have 
not retained the Taino use of montones, 
or raised mound agriculture, and suffer 
from one of the worst records of topsoil 
depletion in the Caribbean (Ferguson 
1992). So too, unfortunately, Dominicans 
have overused the Taino technique of 
slash and burn (swidden) agriculture. 

Many Dominican farmers use what 
they call the mysterios, or the spiritual 
secrets of agriculture, including planting 
with the lunar cycle. This practice is 
documented for the Taino as well. 
Agricultural knowledge is reported to be 
passed on from generation to generation. 
It is interesting to note that in some 
regions, particular days of the week are 
considered bad times to plant. This 

practice may be a creolized 
Catholic/Taino manner of understanding 
the spiritual division of the human world. 
One final agricultural item from pre- 
Columbian times is the use of the coa, 
the indigenous word for a digging stick, 
which is still employed for planting, 
though today with a metal point. 

Yucca and Casabe 

The starchy vegetable tuber yucca 
is a central part of contemporary 
Dominican diet. Sweet yucca is a staple, 
boiled and served for breakfast and 
dinner, often with eggs or a small meat 
accompaniment. Yucca is well matched 
to Dominican soil and life ways, whereby 
it can grow in semi-arid climates and on 
hillsides, and can conserve for several 
months in the earth without rotting. It was 
the key to Taino survival and it is no 
surprise that Yucahu was one of the 
principal deities. So too is it identified as 
the most Dominican of the staples. 

The baking of casabe bread from 
bitter yucca flour is a Dominican tradition 
that has strong ties to the Taino past. 
While common at the household level 
only generations ago, casabe production 
is today available principally from family 
bakeries and small factories, who truck 
the casabe to local stores throughout the 
country. The technology of casabe 
production has not changed much over 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 

the years, and most of the terminology is 
the same. The yucca is grated with 
guayos (today sharpened spoons peel 
the yucca and mechanical metal graters 
are used for grating), leeched of the 
poisonous starch (anaiboa or almidon) in 
canoe shaped receptacles (canoa), 
strained, and dried into flour (catibia). 
Then the flour is spread with the help of a 
circular iron mold, and baked on the top 
of an oven (buren) for about twenty 
minutes until solid (Figure 5). Casabe can 

conserve in its cooked form for several 
months without spoilage, making it an 
important food product in the tropical 
environment. Casabe is always served 
during Christmas and Easter times, and 
its presence on the Dominican table is 
expected. It is important to note that in 
recent years the availability of bread 
made from wheat flour have led to a 
diminished use of casabe in Dominican 

Fiqure 5 

Making casabe at a bakery at 
Cacique, Moncion 

Alternative uses of yucca flour 
have declined in their importance over the 
years, however several food products are 
still made. Panesico are baked logs of 
yucca flour and pork fat, and are 
considered a specialty of the Cibao 
region. Dominican empanadas, deep- 
fried dough pockets stuffed with meat, are 
only made with yucca flour. Bolas de 
yuca are deep-fried balls of yucca flour. 
Jojadra are powdery ginger cookies made 
of yucca starch. 

Foodways and Tobacco Use 

Besides yucca, many fruits and 
vegetables of indigenous origin have 
remained staples in the Dominican diet. 

They include the guayaba, guanabana, 
pina, lechosa, yautia, mani, and batata. 
Other indigenous fruits and vegetables 
that are eaten but are becoming less 
common include the anon, mamon, 
caimito, jagua, jobo, and mamey. Ajies 
(peppers) are an essential part of daily 
bean preparation. The popular Dominican 
salcocho (stew) may be derived from the 
indigenous pepper pot or ajiejaco, and 
arepas (corn-fritters) may also be of 
indigenous origin. Certainly both these 
dishes have native connotations 
surrounding them. So too is seasoning 
with bixa (annatto seed), although this 
spice's use has dwindled with the 
availability of packaged seasoning and 
canned tomato sauce. 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 

Cooking in earthenware pots, 
similar in style to Taino ceramic ware, 
while becoming more and more rare, is 
known as a way of making beans more 
flavourful. Vega (1987:100-101) 

documents the use of another indigenous 
root, guayiga in the making of a bread- 
mush called cholo, popular in the south. 
Another root, guayaro, appears wild 
throughout the Cibao. The terms mabi 
and cacheo describe non-alcoholic drinks 
with indigenous origins that are still locally 
produced from fermented palm. Finally, 
the Taino word bucan describes the 
technique of spit-roasting, an important 
element of a barbecue (Taino word 

Tobacco (tabaco) has a long 
history of use in the Dominican Republic, 
especially in the campo. Tobacco is an 
integral part of santeria ceremonies, 
where cigar smoking is used in spirit 
offerings and possession rituals. Besides 
being big business for export, tobacco is 
ubiquitous as a smoking product 
throughout the Dominican Republic. 
People smoke locally made cigarettes, as 
well as cigars and pipes. Many traditions 
of tobacco use include rolling cigars 
(tubanos), or smoking a compacted 
tobacco leaf plug called andullo in a pipe 
(cachimba) or rolled in cigarette paper 

Medicinal Knowledge 

Dominican natural medicinal 
knowledge makes use of many 
indigenous plant species and healing 
techniques. Many remedies have a Taino 
association to them, and it is probable 
that this association is not coincidental 
but was handed down over the 
generations as seen in Cuba (Barreiro 
1989). Examples of natural medicine 

using indigenous products are numerous 
and include the use of calabaza leaves 
for toothaches and swelling, ingesting 
maguey juice for the flu, and eating 
guayaba for nausea. There are herbalists 
and curanderos in every campo, and it is 
often common to see greater reliance on 
natural medicines further away from 
industrialized city centers (Weeks et al. 
1994). However, due to the increased use 
of pharmaceuticals, natural medicine has 
also declined in recent years. 

Fishing Techniques 

Fishing techniques of indigenous 
origin have been well documented by 
Vega (1987:105-106). These include the 
use of fishing corrals, the temporary 
poisoning of small rivers or pools 
(sometimes with the almidon leeched 
from bitter yucca), the use of fiber fishing 
nets {nasas), and techniques for 
localizing fish and shellfish in shallow 
waters. The following fish and marine 
animals all have Taino names: carite, 
menjua, cojinua, jurel, dajao, guabina, 
macabi, tiburon, guatapana, Iambi, 
burgao, carey, juey, hicotea, and jaiva. 
Fishing has become a less important food 
procurement strategy in recent years, as 
dams, soil erosion, and pollution have 
dramatically lessened the quantity of fish 
in rivers. 

Crafts and Technologies 

Locally made ceramics use basic 
forms with transculturative origins. Most 
popular in contemporary campo use 
today are tinajas, large amphoras used 
for water storage, and rounded cooking 
vessels called oyas. With the availability 
of imported plastic and metal containers 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 

and cooking pots, however, the use of 
ceramics in Dominican culture is waning. 

While the Taino had a strong 
tradition of woodworking, Dominicans 
seem to have been progressively losing 
their woodworking skills. This may be, in 
part, due to deforestation and the 
unavailability of many of the fine woods 
like caoba (mahogany). There is, 
however, in the contemporary Dominican 
Republic, industrial production of fine 
furniture. Rocking chairs are well known 
as Dominican cultural items and chairs 
are available for guests in even the 
poorest of households. 

Bateas are flat wooden containers 
that are used to carry fruits. Their origin is 
Taino, and often associated with their use 
for washing gold in rivers. Indeed, bateas 
are still used for this purpose today, for 
example in the Rio Chacuey. Bateas, like 
ceramics, are becoming less and less 
used, with the importation of cheap 
alternative plastic containers and 

receptacles. Many traditional makers of 
bateas have had to use less durable trees 
in recent years, making their products of 
cheaper quality. Some have expanded 
their product line into the tourist market 
by making decorative wooden spoons 
and forks. It is interesting to see that the 
word batea has been extended to the 
ponchera, the Spanish word for a large 
plastic bowl. 

Dominican boat craft are still made 
along the coast, but have lost much of the 
technological features used in making 
Taino canoas and cayucos. The method 
of making a canoa from a hollowed-out 
royal palm as a feeding and watering 
trough for cows is still found in some 
campos (Figure 6). This technology is 
becoming increasingly rare due to the 
limitations put on the cutting of larger 
trees, on the number of craftsmen who 
still know how to make a canoa, and on 
the increasing availability of used tractor 
tires as watering troughs. 

Fiqure 6 

Canoa feed and water troughs 
in Los Pinos, Moncion 

Calabashes, called higuero, made 
of various sizes and shapes, are still used 
by rural Dominicans as water receptacles, 
bowls, and food containers (Figure 7). 
Macutos, handbags of guano or cana 

fiber are also still made, but are less 
prevalent due to the availability of plastic 
and paper bags. Baskets {canasta) made 
of bejuco (vines), palm, cana, guano, and 
other native fibers are used for clothes 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 


hampers and food containers, but are of 
relatively poor quality. Cabuya fibers are 
still used as cordage for ropes and whips, 
but synthetic fibers have become more 
popular in recent years. The use of native 
cotton talgodon) has all but disappeared 
with the importation of woven fabrics. 
Hamaca (hammocks) are today made 
with nylon cord mostly for sale to tourists. 

*# ." 

Beds have wholly replaced the hammock 
for sleeping. Finally, the use of large 
Iambi {Strombus gigas) shells, called 
fotutos, by butchers to advise people 
what meat is being slaughtered by the 
number of blasts on the trumpet has 
indigenous origins, but is also 
disappearing as a cultural form. 

■ ~M.Higueras at the Fiesta 
ECampesinal, Moca 


The word bohio describes a 
country house, often with a cana roof and 
yagua palm siding, and is identified for its 
Taino origins. It also describes the 
prevalent ranchos, patio or field 
structures with cana roofs used to shade 
the sun. Bohios are built like the circular 
indigenous caney, or in a rectangular 
manner. Cana is used for its availability, 
its ability to withstand water, its durability 
(lasting up to twenty years in a tropical 

climate), and its breathabilty. Cana is also 
appreciated for its decorative beauty, and 
is often chosen for discotheques, 
restaurants, and cock fighting rings 
(galleras). The only negative element of 
using cana is it is not good for rainwater 
collection. Bejucos (vines) are sometimes 
still used to bind together ranchos, 
although nails are much more common. 
Another style of house building that also 
reflects Taino heritage are those that use 
the royal palm yagua fronds for walls and 
roofing (see Figure 8). 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 


Yagua house in Jamao, Moca 

Folklore and Religion 

Folklore and religion have many 
associations with indigenous heritage. 
Taino Indian spirits are commonly 
reported to dwell in rivers and caves 
throughout the country. Many sites of 
natural beauty or geological rarity have 
become associated as Indian places or 
sacred sites. Pools in rivers are often 
named "charco de los Indios" as are 
caves "cueva de los Indios", even if there 
is little artifactual evidence of indigenous 
use or occupation. Folklore often 
surrounds these places as spiritually 
dangerous or as sites where healing may 
occur, and are used accordingly. 

Folk syncretic belief systems 
combine Indian imagery and spirit 
blessings into their ritual and belief 
structures. Herbal shops, or botanicas, 
often sell Indian statues and candles 
which are thought to bring good luck and 
fortune to a person using them. 
Indigenous herbs and flowers like copey 
are burned in spiritual contexts. Small 
bracelets are worn by new-borns for 
protection. Indigenous axe-heads or 
"piedras de rayo" are sometimes put into 
tinajas to protect a house from lightning. 

Many stories about supernatural 
beings have indigenous origins, including 
the Ciguapa, a woman-beast with long 
hair and inverted feet. 

Art, Poetry, and Literature 

In the field of the arts, poetry, and 
literature, Dominicans have made great 
use of indigenous themes. Work by Cibao 
artists such as Luis Munoz, Bottin 
Castellanos, and Gina Rodriguez use 
Taino imagery and technology in their 
artistic expression. Indigenous themes 
also appear in works of poetry and 
literature, theater and modern dance. 
Merenguero Juan Luis Guerra uses many 
indigenous themes in his music; a recent 
album of his was titled areito. Many 
Dominican folksongs, as well, make 
reference to Indians of Quisqueya, 
including the caciques Enriquillo and 

Popular Identity 

Perhaps the greatest association 
with the indigenous past comes with the 
biological feature known as the "Indio" 
skin color. While some official identity 
cards use the term "trigueno" to describe 
the majority of Dominicans, "Indio" is the 
commonly held concept for the color of 
Dominican skin, and the "race" of the 
Dominican people. The term, popularized 
by Trujillo to distance Dominicans from 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 


darker skinned Haitians, skirts the issue 
of Native American inheritance, which is 
referred to by the word indigena, and 
simply defines the physical manifestation 
of being of mixed race. 

Dobal (1989:25) writes about 
indigenous physical qualities, 

temperaments, and sexuality of Taino 
origin, and suggests that the long, 
straight-hair, large brown eyes, and soft 
skin of campesinas is Taino in origin. 
While such observational criteria appear 
straight forward, subjective traits have 
proven to be unreliable in making larger 
cultural generalizations. So too, is it 
problematic to use early Spanish 
descriptions of physical beauty to 
generalize what the Taino looked like in 
the 15th century. However, it is 
acknowledged that biological "racial" 
features are recognized by members of a 
cultural community and often form the 
basis of assessing cultural difference. 
Dominicans, certainly, would agree with 
Dobal's description of Indios. 

Dobal further suggests that the 
Dominican has inherited the indigenous 
love for liberty, the appreciation for the 
esthetics as opposed to the functionality 
of objects, the lack of ambition or 
greediness, and the love for their 
homeland and place of birth (Dobal 
1989:26). Indian strength and bravery is 
often a quality assumed by many 
Dominicans, and many campos which are 
known for the courage of their people are 
cited as places where there is a lot of 
Indian blood. Matrifocality is a cultural 
trait described in ethnohistoric documents 
about the Taino, and can be tied to some 
degree to the present. Perhaps, it is a 
matrifocal love for homeland, that Dobal 
comments on, a love to be in the place 
where you were born and raised. 

In the Dominican Republic, it is 
difficult to attach a clean ethnic category 

to the whole population. The amount of 
historical and contemporary 

miscegenation between individuals of 
different African, Indian, and European 
blood has been very high, and has 
produced a multitude of biological mixes. 
There is a tremendous range of so-called 
"racial" features, for example, in hair 
texture, skin color, and facial shape. 
Basically, the way Dominicans recognize 
and talk about biology, some Dominicans 
look more "Black", some more "White", 
and some more "Indian". In this sense, 
Dominicans appear as a multi-biological 
people. On top of this, however, many 
Dominicans have combinations of "racial" 
features that make it difficult to pinpoint 
their exact biological ancestry. 
Dominicans have invented names for 
over 20 different physical mixes including 
trigueho, indio, indio claro, trigueno 
oscuro, canelo, pinto, etcetera. Thus, the 
Dominican Republic appears a "melting- 
pot" as well as a place of many separate 

Ultimately, though, when simple 
biology — the way people look — is put 
aside in favor of discussions about 
culture — what people do — the Dominican 
Republic displays a common 
denominator, uni-cultural identity that has 
little correlation with the physical 
appearance of its people. Indeed, there is 
no such thing as a distinct Black 
Dominican culture, White Dominican 
culture, or Indian Dominican culture. 
Regional difference do exist but for the 
most part, cultural differences appear 
between rich Dominicans and poor 
Dominicans, and between "city" 
Dominicans and "campo" Dominicans, 
and even these differences dissolve in 
discussions of a unifying national identity. 

While it is true that Dominicans 
with more European ancestry and culture 
represent the group which historically 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 


have had more access to money and 
power, they represent a small fraction of 
the demographic whole. While their 
influence in controlling the production of 
national identity has been strong, I will be 
focusing on the cultural realities for the 
majority of Dominicans, who are poor and 
without access to power. 

Popular Culture 

Finally, Taino imagery is often 
found in a romanticized form in various 
elements of Dominican capitalist and 
nationalist culture. Strong Taino 
caciques, who appear portrayed as 
national heroes, appear on stamps and 
coins. Indians are found as sculpture and 
bas-relief on buildings, often in positions 
of subservience or in chains. Indians are 
often denigrated to the level of mascots 
hawking the following products: Enriquillo 
soda water, Guarina saltines and cookies, 
Siboney rum, and Hatuey soda crackers. 
The name "Taino" adorns businesses 
from pizza parlors to delivery services. A 
popular beer is called Quisqueya. For 
many Dominicans these product names 
are their most familiar association with 
the Taino past. 

While nationalist Hispanic imagery 
has had a constraining effect on how 
Dominicans view the Taino past, there 
are also unofficial alternate expressions 
that resist the dominant discourses. For 
example, many Dominicans claim that it 
is bad luck (fuku) to say the name 
Christopher Columbus aloud and that La 
Isabella, one of the first Spanish 
settlements on the north coast of the 
island, is haunted by Spanish ghosts. 
These may be considered signs of 
struggle against dominant history and 
rejections of official ways of speaking 
about the legitimated glory of the Spanish 
past. During the Columbian 

quincentennial a large multi-million dollar 
lighthouse monument was built in the 
Dominican capital of Santo Domingo. 
Surrounding it is a tall stone wall that 
blocks poor barrio residents from crossing 
the Faro's grounds. This wall, built to hide 
the realities of Dominican poverty from 
the visiting dignitary or tourist, is known 
by everyone as the Muro de la 
Verguenza, or the Wall of Shame. It is an 
apt metaphor for the official national 
vision of Dominican identity represented 
by the Faro: available only to those who 
have the power and wealth to access it 
(see Figure 9). 

Fiqure 9 

The Columbus Lighthouse 
from the other side of the 
Wall of Shame, Santo 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 

With the murder of human rights 
lawyer Rafael Ortiz during a 
quincentennial protest march, attention 
was called to the repressive, manipulative 
way the government was controlling the 
celebration of its national history. Ortiz's 
assassination proved to be a successful 
governmental tactic to quell further 
resistance to official quincentennial 
activities. Posters and simple graffiti 
reading "No al Quinto Centenario? 
became the only visible form of organized 
resistance. Several critical articles in 
national newspapers did appear but had 
very little influence on the national 
quincentennial programs. 

The quincentennial inspired 
Pilgrimage for Human Dignity was held 
on 5 December 1992 as a protest against 
the official Columbian celebrations. 

Literature distributed at the march read 
"... vamos a conmemorar la resistencia 
indigena, negra y popular en el dia de la 
llegada de Colon..." On this pilgrimage 
from Santiago to Santo Cerro (La Vega), 
various banners were unfurled with anti- 
governmental imagery. One banner 
satirized the typical San Miguel image, 
dramatizing an Indian as San Miguel, 
slaying Columbus as the devil, his wings 
the flags of Spain and the United States 
(see Figure 10). It is no coincidence that 
San Miguel is also the "Captain of the 
21st Indigenous Division" in syncretic 
religious belief. That is, Saint Michael has 
been transformed in folk belief systems to 
represent the Indian spirit who struggles 
against oppression (of all negative forms 
represented by the devil). 

Fiqure 10 

San Miguel protest banner 

The active work of individuals like 
the organizers of the Columbian 
quincentennial protests opened many 
eyes to the realities of the Dominican past 
and present, which were exposed as 
intricately connected. So too did many 
educators, teachers and parents engage 
in their students and children a critical 
response to the national celebrations. A 
librarian from a private Santiago school 
encouraged students to work on projects 
concerning the indigenous past. The work 

they produced was well researched, 
informative, and edifying. 


In a sense, the stories of Spanish 
colonization were successful: the Taino 
were declared extinct and nationalist 
Hispanic ideology has dominated the 
country's discussions of cultural identity. 
However, a closer examination of the 
persistence of Taino-derived cultural 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 


forms reveals their underlying strength. 
The roots of traditional Dominican culture 
are truly Taino. 

It is no accident that from the 
excluded nature of Taino heritage some 
of the most creative cultural, artistic, and 
political expression is born. Most 
Dominicans who reflect on the "extinct" 
Taino past they were taught in school and 
popular culture, realize it is only a partial 
story of their identity. Dominican educator 
Antonio de Moya (1993) writes that "the 
[Indian] genocide is the big lie of our 
history... the Dominican Tainos continue 
to live, 500 years after European contact" 

The direction that Taino identity 
will take in the Dominican Republic 
seems to depend on both the survival of 
indigenous cultural elements in the face 

of advancing Western culture of 
development and globalization, and on 
the work of motivated individuals to 
critically examine the composition of their 
identity. From my personal 

understanding, identifying with traditional 
heritage arises from the active vision of 
elders, the true teaching of parents to 
their children, the selfless commitment of 
individuals to their community, and the 
heartfelt love and respect for the spirit of 
the land people live on and call their 
home. This may not be the easiest task 
for colonized Dominicans living in an 
underdeveloped nation under a global 
order. As we say in the Cibao, "No es 
facil, compai\" But for Quisqueyanos 
"valientes" with great spirits and centuries 
of resistance, it seems as natural to say 
"No hay ma' na'l Hay que echar p'alantef 


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Dobal, Carlos (1989). El retrato de Espaillat y otros estudios historicos. Publicaciones 
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Ferbel, Peter J. (1995). "The Politics of Taino Indian Heritage in the Post- 
Quincentennial Dominican Republic: When a Canoe Means More than a Water Trough." 
Ph.D. Diss., University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. 

Ferguson, James (1992). The Dominican Republic Beyond the Lighthouse. Latin 
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Garcia Arevalo, Manuel (1988). Indigenismo, arqueologia, e identidad national. Museo 
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KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 


Dr. P. J. Ferbel - Taino Survival in the 21 Century 


Rouse, Irving (1992). The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People who Greeted 
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Vega, Bernardo (1981). La Herencia Indigena en la Cultura Dominicana de Hoy. In 
Ensayos Sobre Cultura Dominicana, pp. 9-53. Museo del Hombre Dominicano, Santo 

(1987). Santos, shamanes y zemies. Fundacion Cultural Dominicana, Santo Domingo. 

Weeks, John M., P. J. Ferbel, K. Liss, F. Rosario, V. Ramirez (1994). Chacuey 
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Museo del Hombre Dominicano, Santo Domingo. 

Dr. Pedro J. Ferbel Azcarate, from the U.S., is an 
anthropologist and archaeologist, with a Ph.D. from 
the University of Minnesota, in the United States. 
From 1993 until 1999 he worked in the Dominican 
Republic as the principal researcher, instructor, and 
curator of the Historical Archives of Santiago, and 
as director of many archaeological and ecological 
projects, such as the Archaeological Project of 
Chacuey, Caballo Loco Tours, and the Route of 
Columbus. At present, he is a professor at the 
University of Portland, co-editor of the Caribbean 
Amerindian Centrelink website, and co-editor of 
their electronic journal Kacike. He is a lecturer and 
writer about the Taino heritage and is very active in 
his community on Latino culture and social affairs. 

Adjunct Assistant Professor 

Black Studies 

Portland State University 

P.O. Box 751 , Portland, OR 97207-0751 

United States of America 

Telephone: (503) 234-9525 (503) 725-4003 

Archivo Historico de Santiago 

Encargado, Dpto. Antropologfa y Arqueologfa 

#124 C, Restauracion, Santiago, Republica Dominicana 

E-Mail: pferbel(5> 

Please cite this article as follows: 

Ferbel, P. J. (2002). Not Everyone Who 
Speaks Spanish is from Spain: Taino Survival 
in the 21st Century Dominican Republic. 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean 
Amerindian History and Anthropology [On-line 
Journal], Special Issue, Lynne Guitar, Ed. 
Available at: [Date 
of access: Day, Month, Year]. 

© 2002, P. J. Ferbel 
KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology